“No movement that I can see. Clouds are coming in though, any update on the weather?”
May turned to Hill, lowering her binoculars.
“Nothing new,” Hill replied. “Shouldn’t snow until around 23:30, same as before.”
May turned back, lifting the binoculars to her eyes again.
“Intel put him three klicks from our position, correct?”
Hill nodded, before remembering that May couldn’t see her.
“Yes,” she replied. “The base is somewhere in the lee of this hill.”
“Visibility is poor,” May commented.
“And it’s not going to get much better.”
May put the binoculars away before looking to Hill for instruction.
“We have to cover three klicks before night falls proper and we lose all visibility,” Hill said. “We’ll approach from the southeast. Keep your shit covered and lights off. Radio silence.”
Hill then turned to Natasha, acknowledging her for the first time since they’d landed.
“Keep up,” she said shortly, before heading off through the snow.
They were in the Central Alps in Austria, in December at nightfall, because if Clint Barton was going to be compromised, he was going to do it properly. And apparently that meant doing so in stupidly inaccessible places in the snow.
Natasha wasn’t supposed to be there.
When news had come through to HQ that Hawkeye had been compromised on a mission in Austria the general consensus was for fuck’s sake Barton this was supposed to be a milk run. There was much rolling of eyes and snide remarks because, for all that SHIELD wanted to be different and special, it was made up largely of military personnel and that’s what they did. And then someone said send May and Hill and, because SHIELD were cruel and unusual, May and Hill were picked for retrieval.
Natasha had marched up to Robshaw's – Director of European Operations – office and demanded she be sent too. After only three months as a legitimate SHIELD agent she really shouldn’t have been given her request.
But then again, it’s not like she requested.
It took almost an hour to walk to within viewing distance of the mountain base, snow and rough terrain making it slow going. True to orders, none of them said a word and, if it weren’t for the crunch of boots on snow, their stretch of mountain would have seemed no different to any other.
It was May who eventually broke the silence, lifting her hand in the standard ‘stop’ position and crouching down.
“Base in sight,” she said, taking out her binoculars again. “Three Jeeps, with tracks indicating another has left, or at least been moved. Two guards on the outermost building.”
“Central building most likely occupied,” Hill said, her own binoculars to her eyes. “Dim light from window, second to the left. No patrol.”
“Ground is clear. A patrol still likely, just hidden,” May pointed out.
“Confirmed,” Hill said after a moment. “Patrol, two o’clock, counterclockwise. Two men. Semi-automatics and assault rifles.”
“Walther PPs and Tavor TAR-21s,” Natasha added.
Both Hill and May turned to where she was gazing down at the base. She couldn’t see their faces when she turned at their silence, but she could imagine their raised eyebrows.
“I know guns,” she said shortly.
Hill looked over at May before shrugging and turning back to the base.
“Three Jeeps means max twelve people, plus Barton. Moved Jeep means either max four more or that the target escaped.”
“The target hasn’t left,” Natasha said. “But neither is he dead.”
There was another brief silence before Hill turned to face her again.
“And how do you know that?” she said archly.
Natasha understood that they didn’t trust her, but this was getting old fast.
“Sebastian Johann Strauss,” Natasha recited. “Middleman between various arms dealers, terrorist cells, and biological weapons synthesisers. Educated in Berlin: biology and economics. Eluded various national and international law enforcement for eleven years, including Interpol, MI6, Mossad, and the CIA. Careful and ruthless. Ties up loose ends. Psych profile suggests sadistic and sociopathic tendencies. The base would be abandoned if Strauss were dead. But Barton won’t be killed before Strauss has had some fun.”
There was silence again when Natasha had finished speaking. She only just heard Hill’s muttered, “Memorised the fucking brief word for word,” before May cut in.
“And Barton can withstand a lot,” she said, accepting Natasha’s conclusions seemingly without question. Natasha warmed to her ever so slightly. “Ergo, in all probability Strauss is still here, the fourth Jeep is for a getaway using the northern road beginning from behind the base, Barton is alive, but not in good shape, in the guarded outbuilding, and we have to get past, at the most, fifteen trained personnel on base to get him out.”
“Fourteen,” Hill said suddenly. “Sniper, ten o’clock, rocky outcrop, approximately thirty feet above the base.”
Natasha and May turned to look where Hill indicated and, after some quick searching, saw the glint of light off the sight of a sniper rifle.
“Plan of action?” May asked.
Hill looked between the May and Natasha.
“Snow is forecast for around 23:30. It’s 17:25 now. The light is nearly gone.”
She cast a quick look around before seemingly coming to a conclusion.
“We’ll wait for darkness. Watch for patrol frequency and guard changes. We’ll get as much information as we can and be ready to strike from 22:00. In this case, Barton is the priority. Incapacitate and terminate hostiles.”
“He must have found something to get him down from his perch,” May cut in. “He’s stupid but he’s not stupid.”
For some reason, Natasha wasn’t too pleased with May calling Barton stupid, even though she wasn’t wrong. But before Natasha could say something she’d probably regret, Hill continued.
“Exactly. Current evidence points to this being something more than we thought.”
Hill’s teeth glinted in the remaining ambient light as she grinned.
“Sit tight ladies. We’ll be warm soon enough.”
Natasha wasn’t entirely sure why she forced her way onto the retrieval mission. In the three months she’d been a fully-fledged SHIELD operative and had been allowed to meet people who weren’t doctors, psychiatrists, and interrogators, she had disagreed with almost everything out of Maria Hill’s mouth based solely on the confrontational set of her shoulders. She had not said more than three words to Melinda May outside of mission briefings and tactical analysis and almost all other agents, inside HQ and out, had made the fact that they didn’t trust her more than clear. In fact, the only person who had attempted to talk to her when they didn’t actually have to was Agent Clint Barton.
So of course half of HQ thought they were fucking.
To be honest, this little stunt wasn’t going to help that notion all that much.
As far as Natasha could tell with her limited time frame, the guards on the outbuilding changed every two hours. It took the patrol seven minutes to complete a circuit of the compound and the centre building was definitely the only other one occupied. They never saw the fourth Jeep.
In the four and a half hours they’d been watching the compound, they hadn’t said anything more to each other than terse requests for someone to move a limb. For the sake of keeping war, they were sat as close together as they felt comfortable and at around 21:30 May had produced a few energy bars to eat. Hill’s teeth were chattering ever so slightly now, and May had taken to shifting in a way that suggested she was losing feeling in her toes.
Natasha was used to the cold.
“There are eight people in the compound,” Natasha said when it was close to approaching 2200. “Eight people, the sniper, Strauss and Barton.”
This time, no one questioned how she’d worked that out.
“Strauss can handle himself,” May said quietly, reminding them of information they all knew. Hill and Natasha nodded.
“Right,” Hill said suddenly. “May; deal with the sniper. Romanov and I will approach the outbuilding from the west, scout the building when the patrol is out of sight and deal with the guards. Hopefully Barton won’t be completely incapacitated. Romanov will look after Barton, I’ll secure us a Jeep. Be quick, quiet, and thorough. We want to be out of the mountains before the snow hits.”
Natasha frowned. Logically, she should deal with the sniper. May was fantastic in combat, but Natasha was quicker and more familiar with this kind of terrain. May and Hill also worked better together than with her – though really everyone did; Natasha wasn’t a team player.
She was also rankled by the fact that she was stuck with looking after Barton, for similar reasons.
But she nodded anyway. Because really, that’s why she’d demanded to come along, was it not? To make sure a man she hadn’t talked alone with for more than three hours in almost eight months was alive enough to carry her debts.
When the man sent to kill her eventually lowered his weapon – a bow, of all fucking things – Natasha wanted to scream. Scream at him for being weak, for being taken in by her lies. Because she was always lying; lie upon lie upon lie wound round her so tight she felt mummified – her insides shredded and her parts kept in jars for people to play with as they wished. Dead, but alive to the glory of a higher power.
And she was tired, which wasn’t fair. Once you were dead you should have peace, after all.
But the man sent to kill her lowered his bow. He refused to give her the only peace she could imagine. Instead he gave her back her parts kept in jars, and ripped the lies from around her head and hands, and told her you have a choice. And that choice means I can do no more for you, you must do it for yourself. Though not in so many words.
So she stood in a room in Bucharest with her insides shredded and her parts in jars but back in her hands, bound by lies that were slowly falling away. And there was no longer a higher power.
This metaphor, Natasha thought a few days later when she was in a holding cell in an anonymous base somewhere in Germany, is getting away from me.
But the lies had loosened enough that she could feel her fingers. And when she looked in the mirror, she didn’t like who she saw, but at least she looked like someone she could one day call Natasha Romanov.
Hill turned out to be correct; there was definitely more to this that SHIELD had initially thought.
They found Barton, as expected, in the outbuilding. He was stripped to the waist and hooded, lying on the cold concrete floor with his hands tied behind his back, and he tensed when Hill and Natasha came through the door.
“Cool it Barton,” hissed Hill. “It’s just Romanov and Hill. We’re busting your fool ass out of here.”
That woman spent too much time around Nick Fury.
With a flick of her head, Hill indicated that Natasha should check Barton over while she held the door. Natasha ripped the hood from Barton’s head, revealing horrible bruising and what was definitely a broken nose and probably a broken jaw. It went nicely with the colourful bruising across the rest of his body that the flashlights picked out.
“W’t you doin’ h’r?” Barton slurred.
“You’ve got yourself a deadly puppy, Barton,” Hill said, ignoring the fact that Barton was probably talking about the two of them and not just Natasha.
Natasha glared at Hill, but before she could snap out a response a shot rang out across the base with May appearing in the doorway almost immediately afterwards.
“Oops, sorry,” she said, not at all apologetically. “Guess they know we’re here now.”
She turned to where Natasha was propping up the injured Barton and trying to manoeuvre him out of the door.
“Barton,” she said. “You look like shit.”
Barton frowned and somewhere outside a door slammed.
“Show time. Get to the Jeep.”
“No fire,” Barton slurred suddenly. “D’n’t go t’far.”
“This would be a really great time,” Hill said, cocking her pistol and taking aim at the men suddenly outside, “to make sense, Barton.”
He struggled in Natasha’s grip, trying to take more weight on his own feet. He was just opening his mouth to say something when Hill suddenly snapped out, “Grenade!” and Natasha silently apologised to Barton as she wrenched him sideways and out of immediate danger.
They landed hard on the cold earth, Natasha underneath his body to soften the impact for him somewhat.
They both groaned.
“Pois’n,” Barton forced out between laboured breaths. “Flamm’ble.”
Natasha eased him off and up and struggled to her feet, thankful that she’d managed to get out of the direct line of fire.
“Napalm,” he said. “S’cure’n’destroy.”
Natasha cursed and, propping Barton up as best she could, she clicked her comm on.
“Hill,” she snapped. “Barton says there’s some sort of napalm here. Flammable. We can’t leave it.”
She heard both Hill and May curse.
She heaved Barton more securely into her grip while simultaneously trying to keep a tight hold on her gun. May and Hill were keeping the remaining gunmen – five by Natasha’s count – focussed on them and away from Natasha and Barton. She managed to get that down to three before the gunmen even knew what was happening. Good.
There was a sudden explosion above their heads and Natasha turned to find Barton with her back-up pistol pointing at the sky. She did some brief calculations and realised that he’d managed to shoot a fucking grenade out of the sky, at ten at night, while beaten to hell. He could hardly stand, but his hands were steady.
“What the fuck was that?” May snapped over the comm.
“Barton,” Natasha supplied shortly, refusing to be impressed. “Grenade.”
“Get him to the fucking Jeep, Romanov,” Hill cut in. “And then run these fuckers down.”
That sounded like a good plan to Natasha.
“Jeep,” Natasha said, forcing Barton to turn.
“Napalm,” he returned, being really fucking stubborn.
“еба́ть,” Natasha swore, and Barton wheezed out a laugh. Well at least his Russian was good enough to work that one out.
“Just think what we could do with an armour plated vehicle, Barton,” she said, forcing him to start moving behind the building and in the direction of where they had decided the fourth Jeep should be.
But of course it wasn’t there because they had forgotten Strauss.
Natasha’s last four bullets went wide, missing the retreating taillights entirely. But as her gun clicked empty, the Jeep erupted into a ball of flame and she turned to Barton to find, once again, his steady arm outstretched and that he’d managed to hit another moving target in near zero visibility.
“How the fuck did you manage to fuck up this mission?” she asked incredulously.
“Good at shooting,” he said shortly, pain lacing his words. “Not so good at sneaking.”
Natasha looked at him, taking in his battered face and his fingers that were slowly turning blue. He’d snuck up on her in Bucharest just fine but, then again, he did strike her as an urban creature.
“I’ll teach you.”
“Yeah?” Barton grinned. It looked like it hurt.
Agent Clint Barton smiled more than an operative for a shady government organisation should. Natasha found it strange. She didn’t think she’d smiled and meant in it in her life.
In fact, lots of people at SHIELD smiled like they meant it. Agent Coulson’s smiles were small but seemingly genuine, Agent O’Driscoll’s smiles were crooked, and Agent Kaur’s seemed to almost split her face in two. Agent Parra smirked and Agent Parisse grinned and Agent Corbisiero beamed. Even Director Robshaw smiled sometimes.
Natasha tried it in the mirror one day, but found she couldn’t think of anything that would make it look genuine.
And then her therapist mentioned that Agent Barton had called Agent Sitwell (whoever he was) a ‘fucking donkey-ass moron’ if he couldn’t see Natasha’s potential, and she felt the corners of her lips lift almost involuntarily.
“Please tell me,” May’s tense voice came through Natasha’s comm unit, “that wasn’t either of you dying a fiery death.”
“Barton again,” Natasha said. “Strauss is dead. So is the fourth Jeep.”
There was a grunt from the other end of the comm line and Natasha heard the gunfire cease. No other information came through though and Natasha, for all that she was a seasoned operative, didn’t feel she could demand sit reps from either Hill or May yet. But then Barton swayed and grunted “sit rep” in her ear and, well, Natasha just repeated his words.
“Hill is hit,” May replied, unfazed that Natasha had demanded a sit rep despite being the most junior SHIELD agent on site. “Shoulder. Hostiles down. Bring Barton round. One Jeep is still mostly intact. And ask about the damn napalm.”
“May wants to know about the napalm,” Natasha passed on, as she nudged Barton back around the building – well, carried to be honest. That last shot seemed to have wiped him out.
“Dunno,” he mumbled and Natasha rolled her eyes, gritting her teeth in the effort of dragging his almost entirely uncooperative body towards May and Hill. “Just… overheard. Centre building. ‘S nasty. More potent, mixed wi’ somethin’. Maybe airborne once burned? ‘S why s’ere. Colder. Keeps. Was selling it t’Syria I think. Or somewhere in t’Middle East. Didn’ find out more – ”
He gasped suddenly, as Natasha jolted him more than she intended. She mumbled a ‘sorry’ and continued.
“ – was caught,” he finished.
“Why did you investigate in the first place? It wasn’t the brief.”
Natasha could see May and Hill at the Jeep, Hill propped up in shotgun.
“You read the brief?” Barton asked. And yeah, she wasn’t supposed to have done, but she’s the Black Widow. She rolled her eyes and let the silence speak for itself.
“Something was off,” Barton mumbled eventually as the approached the Jeep. “Not a straight up drop like the brief said.”
“Something’s always off with you,” May said as soon as they were close enough.
“Rescue team from hell,” Barton replied, and from shotgun Hill grinned.
“You love us.”
May came round to help Barton into the back of the Jeep, getting him settled and throwing a foil blanket on top of him, before giving him and Hill a veritable armoury of half full semi-automatics.
“Stay here and call base for immediate extraction,” she said, mostly to Hill. “Also HAZMAT and medical – don’t lie about your injuries, so help me God. Shoot anything that moves. Call sign is standard. Romanov and I will check this napalm stuff.”
Hill nodded, though Natasha could see she was in considerable pain. After a brief root through the back she found duct tape and taped a wad of some dead guy’s shirt to Hill’s shoulder. Hill nodded in thanks and Natasha felt herself warming to the other woman.
Natasha then turned to Barton in the backseat.
“Don’t die,” she said, before her and May left for the furthest building.
When Natasha had gone rogue from the institute that made her, she had begun tallying debts; debts and favours. They were her currency and they could buy anything. She was doing well if she had more favours than debts, because debts were dangerous and debts got you killed.
Natasha Romanov lasted five years out of the institute before Agent Clint Barton cornered her in Bucharest. She had lots of favours and very few debts, so she was alive but not really.
And then Agent Clint Barton forced onto her the largest debt imaginable: he gave her the ability to choose. And it didn’t matter how many favours she had, she didn’t have enough to counter that.
The other thing about debt is that it can’t be repaid if the creditor is dead.
Natasha and May were cautious as they made their way through the small compound, but it was unnecessary. The only other person they found was the dead body of a man they assumed was a scientist – or at least someone who has something to do with the chemical’s synthesis. He had been shot in the head, but more disturbing was the way his hands had been reduced to blistered stumps.
May said something colourful in Cantonese.
They found the chemical in cold-boxes in the basement of the centre building. At least thirty crates of the stuff.
May’s expletives become more colourful still and Natasha permitted herself the second ‘еба́ть’ of the day.
There was crackling through their comms before Hill’s static-y voice came through, sounding broken-up and distorted.
“May. Romanov. No extraction. Apparently the snow is bad between base and here.”
May’s face became thunderous, and she motioned for Natasha to exit the basement with a sharp flick of her head.
“Fuck’s sake,” she snapped at Hill. “If I can fly a ‘copter through a snowstorm then other people sure as fuck can. Is Horgan on base?”
She pulled the basement door to before trying to find some form of lock that wasn’t the large biometric she’d shot to get in. She lost patience and kicked the doorframe.
“You better fucking answer in the affirmative, Hill. I am not losing anyone today.”
Natasha stepped past her and, in a few quick twists with a rake tine from the floor, removed the door handle. May nodded at her in thanks.
“Horgan’s not there,” Hill replied after a moment.
May cursed again. “Huberman?”
More silence, and then, “Huberman's there but she’s on downtime.”
“I don’t fucking care if she’s on downtime! Get logistics to get her ass in a Hercules and bring me extraction, HAZMAT, and medical. There’s a tonne of the stuff. I fucking know she can do this.”
“Do I have to remind you who’s in charge of this operation?” Hill said mildly, though they could both hear the pain in her voice.
“Maria,” May ground out.
“Cool it, Melinda,” Hill cut in in a long suffering voice, before pausing for a moment.
“They’re sending Huberman," she said after a short silence. "The wrath of Melinda May isn’t something Robshaw or anyone in logistics wants. They’re coming for us.”
May and Natasha scouted out the remaining buildings in silence, snow starting to fall thickly and making the already poor visibility even worse, but they didn’t find anything of note other than Barton’s bow in the kitchen of the main building. May looked at it derisively before shoving it into Natasha’s arms.
Natasha wasn’t sure what there was between Barton and May, but there had to be something. You didn’t get this level of... whatever this was between two people who just hated each other. In fact, Natasha wasn’t sure they even hated each other. She got the impression that she was watching a long, drawn out, and much anticipated divorce; mutually desired but not quite comfortable yet.
The relationship between Barton and Hill was easier to work out; they just didn’t get on.
And then there was Natasha, Barton’s failed mission. No wonder this was the rescue team from hell.
When they got back to the Jeep Natasha was honestly alarmed by the grey of Hill’s face.
“Is the bullet still inside?” Natasha asked, before May could vent further.
Hill nodded tersely.
Natasha gave the Jeep a once over, finding the European-standard first aid kit in the back before checking briefly on Barton, who had more colour to his face and was sleeping fitfully. He probably had an alarming amount of fractures, but Natasha thought the likelihood of internal bleeding was surprisingly low.
“How good is your first aid?” Natasha asked May, while cutting away the duct tape from Hill’s shoulder and getting her into a better position across the front seats of the Jeep.
“Passable,” May replied, cottoning onto what Natasha planned to do.
“Good.” Natasha turned to Hill. “Do you trust me?”
Hill’s complete lack of reaction made her realise how dumb that question was.
“To do this?” Natasha amended. “Do you trust me to do this?”
Hill stared at her a little longer before giving the faintest of nods.
“Right.” Natasha cut the material surrounding the bullet wound. “This is going to hurt like fuck.”
Natasha’s first aid skills were impeccable. They had to be. She could rely on no one but herself to patch her up when something went wrong, and things going wrong were very common in her line of work, no matter how good you were. She’d done self-surgery on several bullet wounds, splinted broken limbs, and sewn up everything from shallow cuts to gashes so deep hospital would have been the more sensible option.
Her experience of working on others was more limited. Assassins weren’t supposed to save people.
That day in Bucharest, with her lies pulled away enough for her to feel her fingers, she’d sewn up a bullet hole in Agent Clint Barton’s hip – a bullet hole she’d put there. She’d expected him to flinch at her touch, but all he’d done was grit his teeth and occasionally ramble about how he totally deserved coffee and donuts after this.
By the time Huberman's extraction team of two Hercules ‘copters – they’d scrounged up another storm trained pilot from somewhere – managed to battle through the worsening snowstorm the four of them had all retreated into the Jeep, whose engine was running to keep the heating on at full blast. Natasha had removed the bullet from Hill’s shoulder and patched her up to the best of her ability before giving her the strongest painkillers the little first aid kit had. Both she and May periodically checked Barton for concussion, but he was seemingly alright, so they mostly let him sleep.
May took the driver’s seat and Natasha briefly considered squashing in alongside Barton before climbing into the back. They kept as much of a look out as they could and called base for updates as often as the storm would let them. The rest of the time May told stories of past missions, Barton’s other idiotic escapades, and the worst situations she had ever found herself in, all cleverly edited to give Natasha very little actual information. Hill interjected when she was awake enough to do so.
Barton occasionally snored, and woke up once to throw up into the footwell, which Natasha cleaned up on the mutual understanding that she might be the most dangerous person in the Jeep, but she was still the junior agent and May sure as fuck wasn’t going to do it.
Natasha carried Barton’s bow on board the ‘copter that was to take them back to Munich and, despite having been awake for almost twenty four hours, May piloted.
No one was going to tell her no.
Years later – after Hill had been made Deputy Director of SHIELD and May had told Natasha about her and Barton’s tempestuous two year pseudo-relationship; after they had become Maria and Melinda, people Natasha met up with to trash talk and drink cocktails with; after Clint Barton had kissed her and she had kissed him back; after she had finally believed him when he told her she didn’t owe him anything – Clint asked her what she had said to Director Robshaw to get her on that rescue mission.
And Natasha had answered; “Please.”